Oil on linen canvas, 1959. 1245x1600 mm; 36 1/4x60 1/4 inches. Signed and dated in oil, upper right recto. Incised title, upper stretcher bar verso.
Provenance: acquired directly from the artist, New York; private collection, New York; thence by descent to the current owners. The original owner, now deceased, was a friend of the artist and had their portrait painted by the artist.
Exhibited: Willard Gallery, New York, with the gallery label on the upper stretcher bar verso.
Moon Madness is an exciting, important late 1950s processional painting by Norman Lewis. It is one of a significant series of nocturnal compositions made by the artist in the late 1950s.
By 1959, Norman Lewis had gained international recognition, having had a series of well-received solo exhibitions at the Marian Willard Gallery, New York. In 1956, with his painting Cathedral, 1950, Norman Lewis was selected to represent the United States in American Artists Paint the City, an exhibition in the American pavilion during the 28th Venice Biennale. Lewis joined fellow Willard Gallery artists Lionel Feininger and Mark Tobey; he and Jacob Lawrence were the only African American artists included. He showed at the Willard Galley again in February of 1957, his sixth solo exhibition there since 1949, and then spent several months traveling--visiting France, Italy, Spain and North Africa. Upon his return to New York in 1958, he had a solo exhibition at the Barnett Aden Gallery in Washington, DC, and his monochromatic painting Night Walk, 1956 was exhibited in the group exhibition Nature in Abstraction at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
In Moon Madness, the artist continues an investigation of processional compositions of his "ritual" calligraphic figures while shifting towards color field painting. This intense and dense canvas simultaneously obscures and reveals a large circle of dancing figures around the central crescent moon. The nocturnal work is similar with its dark multitude of figures to other late 1950s promenade paintings like Strictly for the Birds, 1959, collection of the artist's estate, and Untitled, 1959. The artist was simultaneously painting entirely black and white abstract compositions with such paintings as Night Walk of 1956 and Nocturne, 1959. His black figurative Civil Rights paintings Alabama and American The Beautiful of 1960 were soon to follow. Lewis continued to paint nocturnal scenes, including crescent moons, through the 1950s and 60s on canvas and works on paper. Lewis had previously used the title Moon Madness for a large work on paper in 1952. By the time of his 1961 solo exhibition at the Willard Gallery, he included eight works with the words "moon", "lunar" or "night" in the title.
Norman Lewis continues his navigation between Abstract Expressionism and figuration in Moon Madness. The artist wrote about the diverse forces that shaped his work in a forward to his 1954 exhibition:
"Art is to me the expression of unconscious experiences common to all men, which have been strained through the artist's own peculiar associations and use of his medium. In this sense, it becomes an activity of discovery, emotional, intellectual and technical, not only for the artist, but for those who view his work."